Beatrice Mtetwa is a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe who specializes in defending journalists who have been harassed, jailed and abused by the government of President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe Africa National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Mugabe recently agreed to a power-sharing deal with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now Zimbabwe’s prime minister. Mtetwa spoke to Michael Petrou in Ottawa, where she delivered the convocation address at Carleton University.
Q: What challenges do journalists in Zimbabwe face?
A: Zimbabwe has some of the most repressive laws in the world. And if you want to practice as a journalist, that depends entirely on the government. The government has to approve that you can be accredited as a journalist. The publication that you work for has to be approved by the government. And when you are lawfully accredited, you are still subject to various other restrictions. Lots of journalists get arrested for writing stories that do not go down well with the ZANU-PF leadership. Even if you’re legally doing your job, what you write about may result in you being imprisoned.
Q: It is virtually impossible for foreign journalists to report from inside Zimbabwe. Why does the Zimbabwean government see foreign media as such a threat?
A: The ZANU-PF does not want the outside world to know exactly what is happening inside Zimbabwe. Because foreign journalists know that they will be leaving at the end of their story, they will be able to dig deeper than local journalists. Once they’re out, there will be no consequences for them if they tell the truth.
Q: What happens to local journalists who dig where the government doesn’t want them?
A: A lot of Zimbabwean journalists have had to leave the country because of various threats. They get arrested. They get locked up. We’ve had printing presses bombed. We’ve had journalists killed. It’s not just a matter of losing your livelihood. There’s a real threat of physical harm.
Q: Who are responsible for the beatings, the bombings and the threats?
A: They are state players. There can be no question. But who exactly they are, these are clandestine activities, so one cannot point fingers. But from recent abductions where we have had the government file affidavits admitting that the abductions were carried out by state security agents, there can be no doubt that all other similar activities before would have been done by the same agents.
Q: How is Robert Mugabe able to command the loyalty of his supporters?
A: He has control over virtually all the important security services and ministries. He appoints all the service chiefs in the army. He appoints the commissioner of police. He appoints the chief justice. He appoints all the judges. If you’ve got control of these major institutions, you will have control over everything else. If the police are under his thumb, the army, the judiciary, who is there to stop him doing what he wants to do?
Q: But there are still Zimbabwean journalists who stand up to this intimidation. What motivates them?
A: The truth. It’s their job to ask the truth. It’s the duty of journalists to express what they see on the ground. It can only be bravery, because they dangers are many.
Q: You defend them, at some personal risk. Why?
A: I’m a great believer in free media and freedom of expression. I believe very strongly that you cannot talk of democracy, the rule of law, without a free media. Those who talk of governance, rule of law, democracy—they can only achieve true democracy if there is a free media.
Q: What have you suffered as a result of your work?
A: What other civil society workers face. Harassment, here and there. You get followed from time to time. You get beaten sometimes. It’s part of the territory. You do have your income affected. Lots of clients don’t want to deal with you because you are seen as anti-government, and they fear the consequences of dealing with you.
Q: What has changed since the power sharing agreement between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai?
A: The supermarket shelves are now heavily laden with goods imported from South Africa. But those goods must be paid for with foreign currency, and the majority of Zimbabweans don’t have that. The courts still operate exactly as they did before. The police have not changed in any way. They still arrest first and ask questions later. We still have activists who are facing trial, journalists who are facing trial. And these arrests happened after the signing of the political agreement. The attorney general continues to practice selective prosecutions. Members of the independent media, members of political parties outside the ZANU-PF, are subject to being arrested on a daily basis. Nothing has changed in that sector.
Q: Is that because Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change have so little power?
A: The Movement for Democratic Change has little room to maneuver. Whatever they may want to do, they don’t have the capacity to do it without Mugabe agreeing.
Q: Should they have not entered into the power-sharing deal?
A: I think they should have gone in with a more defined document. There obviously was the belief that there was good faith on both sides. And it’s unfortunate that they thought like that; because good faith is something that Mugabe doesn’t understand. So I think the decision to go in probably was the right one, but it was based on a document that was flawed because it didn’t have enough checks and balances.
Q: Should Canada and other countries give aid to Zimbabwe?
A: I feel very strongly that assistance that will cascade down to the ordinary Zimbabwean should be given. I don’t believe that assistance should mean government-to-government engagement. There must be ways of ensuring that assistance is given that will benefit the people of Zimbabwe without putting that through the government.
Q: The counter-argument is that aid that bypasses the government will still do the government’s work for it and alleviate social pressure and discontent that might otherwise be directed against an oppressive regime.
A: It depends what you want to do. Do you want to make the Zimbabwean government look bad, or do you want to help the people of Zimbabwe? For me, I’m looking at it from a humanitarian perspective. We should not look at how the government will look. We should look at how the ordinary people of Zimbabwe will benefit.
Q: How might Robert Mugabe’s government be removed?
A: He signed an agreement that says there will be elections. The problem is—are we going to have those elections? If so, when, and under what constitution? And who will be in control of what at the time? If President Mugabe still controls the security services, he will have the power to subvert the election anyways.
Q: He’s quite elderly, though. One way or the other, it’s unlikely that he’ll be around for much longer. What will happen when he’s gone?
A: He’s left this legacy that will be very difficult to shake off. He’s shaped the way Zimbabwean politics goes. And he doesn’t do these things on his own. The people in his party are absolutely certain that they are entitled to rule forever. So there will be somebody to step into his shoes who has been schooled in his way of doing things. What would probably change is that a new person would not cause the same sort of fear that Mugabe does. But the culture of doing things in this way is a culture of the party, and it will probably continue, albeit in a more diluted manner.
Q: You don’t sound very hopeful for your country.
A: I would love to be hopeful and believe that things will change quickly. But on the ground I haven’t seen anything to make me think that this will come on a platter. There are many hurdles. Some changes will come, but not as easily as most people think.
Q: Some people talk of a violent revolution or even a regime change from outside. What do you think about that?
A: I don’t think a revolution would help the people of Zimbabwe. It would decimate a population that is already very severely decimated. And also on the ground, I can’t imagine who would want to be involved in that. A revolution requires leaders who would advocate that. I can’t imagine anyone doing so successfully. And I don’t think Zimbabweans would buy that anyway, because of the entrenched fear that is already there.
Q: And regime change from outside?
A: It probably wouldn’t work. And I don’t think it would really be the solution for Zimbabwe.